Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, known as Tortuguita (Photo via GoFundMe/Gabe Eisen)
The “Stop Cop City” activist who was shot dead by Georgia police earlier this year was likely sitting cross-legged on the ground, with their hands raised, when gunfire from multiple officers struck them at close-range, according to an independent autopsy. Lawyers for the family of 26-year-old Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, known as Tortuguita, released the results of that autopsy in a press conference Monday. The report also showed they were shot at least 14 times, including in the face.
“Manuel loved the forest, they meditated there, the forest connected them with God,” Tortuguita’s mother, Belkis Terán, said on Monday. “I never thought that Manuel could die in a meditation position. My heart is destroyed.”The independent autopsy results cast additional doubt on the police’s narrative, which was that they acted in self-defense after Tortuguita shot an officer in the leg. “[They] were shot so many times and by different firearms that the tracks running through the body converge and intersect,” said Brian Spears, one of the lawyers representing Tortuguita’s family. “Manuel was looking death in the face, hands raised, when killed.” Tortuguita was a prominent voice in the “forest defenders” or “Stop Cop City” movement in Atlanta, Georgia. Environmental and anti-police activists have been camping out in treehouses as part of their protest against a planned $90 million police training center on 400-acres of South River Forest (also called the Weelaunee Forest) in the Atlanta area. Tortuguita was killed by Georgia State Patrol on the morning of Jan. 18, as officers attempted to clear the encampment at at the site of the proposed training center. “The police went to the forest that morning planning for violence,” said lawyer Jeff Filipovits. “It was a planned operation, yet no one had a body camera when they shot Manuel.”The City of Atlanta have claimed that there is no body camera footage that shows the shooting, but it did release one body camera video in which an officer makes a comment that seems to suggest the injured trooper could have been wounded by friendly fire. Georgia's Bureau of Investigation acknowledged that video in a press release last month but dismissed the officer’s remark as “speculation.” The Georgia Bureau of Investigation also claims that the bullet recovered from the officer's wound was consistent with the handgun that was legally owned by Tortuguita. However, they’ve not released the details of that analysis.
Tortuguita’s family and lawyers say that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation have been selectively releasing evidence surrounding the events of Jan. 18, withholding the government’s autopsy report and blocking Atlanta from releasing additional video. The bureau has also refused to meet with Tortuguita’s family, lawyers say. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation said in a statement that they are simply trying to “preserve the integrity of the investigation.” “I invested so much time, care, dedication, to educate my children to become active members of a society. I gave them love, and compassion,” Tortuguita’s mother Terán said. “But now there are no answers.” Tensions between the forest defenders and police have continued to escalate since Tortuguita was killed. Local law enforcement have continued an aggressive crackdown on the movement, which spiraled into angry clashes between protesters and police earlier this month. Meanwhile, Georgia officials are facing mounting criticism from civil liberties groups for charging dozens of “Stop Cop City” activists under their state domestic terror law, which carries a maximum sentence of 35 years in prison.So far, 41 activists have been charged with domestic terrorism—more than half of those were from this month. Filipovits said Monday that none of the 22 recent arrestees who are being held without bond are accused of wielding molotov cocktails or shooting off fireworks towards police. Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.